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Thursday 22 August 2002

That Merry Wanderer of the Night

Or, How I learnt to stop worrying and enjoy plundering the fantastic works of the Bard!

by Sophie Masson

Shakespeare looms so large on the cultural map of Anglophones, his shadow is so enormous, that few writers have dared do to his work what the Bard himself did all the time to others — plunder plots, pinch a bit of spice here, a touch of fairy dust there, a whisk of gossamer here, a riot of wordplay there, a character's name, a myth here, and stir it all into the pot. The fact that he sometimes faltered, that not all his works are of equal power and significance pales beside the knowledge that within all of them — and heart-stoppingly so in many — is a gift so extraordinary, a presence so generous and open, that contemplating it leads many, many people to the kind of idolatry that has a Harold Bloom claim he was 'the inventor of the human'. There are any number of non-fiction books on Shakespeare and his work — biographies, criticism, reflections, ruminations — worshipping at the shrine, everything from sober literary theory to New Age self-help therapy based on his wit and wisdom. Everyone sees Shakespeare in their image, refashions him as they would like him to be, or conversely, makes him a straw man for everything they most hate. A new discovery about even the smallest bit of Shakespeare biography or background hits the front pages of newspapers all over the English-speaking world; debate rages lively and rich in scholarly circles, amateur circles, email lists… Sometimes it seems to me that Shakespeare is fast becoming the centre of a new religion; one whose sacred figure is seen as humanistic, sceptical, melancholy, deeply spiritual yet agnostic. No other author has the dubious distinction of having had so many conspiracy theories worked up about his 'real' identity; heretics or apostates are a feature of any religion, after all.

But it is interesting to note that there have been few novels written either about his life, or directly based on his works (though of course his influence permeates literature as a whole). Indeed, there have been few imaginative excursions into Shakespeariana per se; and yet the few there are have usually been of a high standard, and become classics themselves. In the theatre, I can think of Tom Stoppard, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on a sidelight in Hamlet, as well as Australian playwright Michael Gow's perennial favourite, Away, a beautiful riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream, segueing into King Lear. In film, of course, there have been many: from Shakespeare in Love (with script co-authored by Stoppard) to West Side Story, from O to Looking for Richard and Ran (I am not thinking here of the many filmings or adaptations of actual Shakespeare plays). In literature, Anthony Burgess and John Mortimer both wrote highly idiosyncratic novels of Shakespeare's life in London; in more recent times, Susan Cooper, J.B. Cheaney and Gary Blackwood have written wonderful children's novels based on Shakespeare's theatrical life and times. But there are not as many as you might expect: it is obvious that many writers feel the need for nerves of steel to dare to think of going into this territory. After all, he looms as the Writer's God most of all, a major anxiety of influence.

And the most characteristic of Shakespearean traits: his love of fantasy, his mischievous use of folklore, of fairytale, of legend and magic, his use of parallel history, of what-might-have-been, are often not touched on at all. Shakespearean fantasy is thin on the ground. Without wanting to be unduly immodest, I think I am responsible for a certain proportion of it, with two Shakespearean fantasy novels to my name, Cold Iron (published as Malkin in the USA) and The Lost Island (to be published in the UK next year), and a third on the drawing-board. It’s hard to think offhand of many Shakespearean fantasies by other authors: but they include Sarah A. Hoyt’s very new Ill Met by Moonlight, and Tad Williams’s Caliban’s Island (1994). It is surely surprising that more authors have not taken up this glorious, fun, and challenging field, so rich in potential.

Why is that? I'd like to briefly offer some opinions, before going into my own experience of writing Shakespearean fantasy.

I remember when it first struck me that Shakespeare, for all the evaluation of him as the greatest writer and understander of the human heart who ever lived, would have problems these days being categorised as worthy, or literary, because of his extensive use of fantasy. Fantasy lies deep at the heart of his work. Now, we are used to making the Tolkienesque distinction between 'fancy' — taken to be sugary, whimsical, superficial stuff, the sort of imagination that conjures up pretty fairies clothed in pink gossamer, or magic as a kind of otherworldly sweet shop — and 'real' fantasy, taken to be 'serious', based on myth rather than whimsy. But I think that in Shakespeare's case — and indeed in many other cases — such a distinction is a false one, and barking up the wrong tree. There is no intrinsic reason why a 'fanciful' notion such as a tiny fairy called Cobweb, whose touch heals wounds, should not coexist with the elemental, mythical notion of a King and Queen of the fairies whose quarrels make the whole of Nature, as well as the human world, out of joint. No reason why a dancing spirit called Ariel should not be both a mischievous sprite who would not be out of place in Narnia, say, and the ambivalent, deeply moving representative of human ambiguity. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a touch of that fancy, that whimsy, that lightness, is in fact an inextricable part of the best, most satisfying and timeless deep fantasy — something Tolkien himself recognised in his great essay on fairy tales, and also did very well in The Hobbit, for instance, but mostly rejected in The Lord of the Rings (to its detriment, in my heretical opinion). All the great children's classics — and children's literature is where fantasy moves most naturally and easily, and timelessly, in post-industrial times — have that amazing combination, a lightness of touch, which makes them evergreen, a breath of spring. And Shakespeare's fantasies do as well (here, it might be interesting to note that Tolkien did not like Shakespeare; reacting perhaps to that very mixture).

Shakespeare was the last of the medieval writers, and amongst the first of the early moderns. He is both King of Shadows and that merry wanderer of the night; both the fearful questioner who asks ‘who’s there?’ in the very first sentence in Hamlet, to the disillusioned dry-eyed sceptic who can say ‘all the world’s a stage’. His work and personal background straddles transitions of all kinds; religious, social, cultural, economic. Rural-born and bred, yet a Londoner later, a cradle Catholic forced, like the rest of his family, to conform to the new faith, ambivalent in his politics, his allegiances, even perhaps his sexuality, his presence in his works is that of a creature of not one world but several, moving in and out of them with ease and pleasure, but also with a sense of loss, a mourning for rootedness and certainty. His spirit is, perhaps, most like Puck's; both of the inner and outer worlds, an in-betweener who can see both worlds clearly, but whose price for mobility is a kind of eternal exile from peace of mind. His fantasy lodges in your mind because it expresses that ambivalence so well, both the joy and the sorrow of it; the double gift and curse that is the lot of those who have been given entry to the otherworld. And yet it is also very much the spirit of his times; Shakespeare was not writing for us, he was writing for his own people, people of all ages, of both sexes, of all kinds of backgrounds: for groundling and courtier, Falstaffian ribald and university intellectual. He was writing to please audiences, and also to please himself. Yet mysteriously, it is that very particularity which has made him universal. Fantasy is the natural state of man's soul, he saw that clearly, knew that deeply. Fantasy is the realism of the soul. But we cannot only live in shadows and dreams and reflections; we must live in body as well as soul. Inner and outer world must be wedded together, must be interwoven, if there is to be any growth in people. And yet the tension of that is also productive; it can be what makes creativity itself, that thorn under the skin, that splinter of glass in the heart.

In some ways, the mindset of Shakespeare's times was less dualistic, less earnest, less determined to categorise than ours; just as Elizabeth I did not want to 'make windows into men's souls', but preferred to leave people's inner religious convictions alone, as long as they did not directly clash with the safety of her reign and her country, Shakespeare was 'holding a mirror up to nature', not prescribing medicine for that human nature's ills. The essence of fantasy, with its liberating laughter, its mercurial disturbing of false, or hypocritical order, its rude raspberries at literalisation, is also an upholder of good order, of custom, of tradition, and memory. Elusive, darting, melancholy, in this form it is a stranger to ideology.

But our times, until recently, have been distinguished by ideology — by the necessity of assigning values, specifications, certainties on things that cannot really be certain. The breakup of many of those certainties has led to immense suffering, but also immense possibility, bringing us perhaps closer to Shakespeare's transitional age than has been the case for a while. Perhaps we will start to see a lot more Shakespearean fantasy!

And so from the general to the particular: as a non-Anglophone, as someone whose native language indeed is French, the traditional rival to English, I had little idea of the idolatry in which Shakespeare was held until I was in high school. Though we lived mostly in an English-speaking country, Australia, my very French parents were determined to create a little island of Frenchness at home in what they saw as an Anglo-Saxon sea. Reverence for Shakespeare certainly did not figure in that, but because of the love of my parents for legend, folktale, fairytale and traditional lore in general, and because they are people for whom religious and spiritual things mean a great deal, unconsciously, I was being prepared not for the intellectual exercise of Shakespeare, the anxiety-making perception of his lonely originality, but for his storytelling and folkloric and spiritual sides, the aspects of him which were communal, populist, uncertain, even unfashionable.

Indeed, my first real introduction to Shakespeare was as a songwriter, because my music-lover of a father had bought a record of songs from Shakespeare's plays, sung by the counter-tenor Alfred Deller. I knew those songs by heart long before I knew the plays they came from; they were light, folkish, strangely addictive songs, with words I could easily understand, and whose context I did not even think about. The very first Shakespeare play I looked at was The Merchant of Venice, which we read in class, when I was in my second year of high school. I was struck and astonished by the story, which also seemed to me to have a very folktaley, fairytale edge to it (and indeed, it does — one of the bases for it is a famous Georgian medieval story of a king who tested his arrogant courtiers with three caskets), but also by the feeling and passion of the characters, especially Shylock. The exotic setting of Venice, too, helped in the glamour of it. I was swept into the sheer storytelling verve of the man, the cleverness and deftness of his plot, as well as the spine-chilling, striking depiction of the strangeness of human nature in all its contradictory aspects. This was not the work of a misanthrope, not the work of someone who worked a parti pris, as it's said in France, from prejudice; this was a man who opened himself to the multitudinous signals and contradictions of human life. I still did not realise that he was a humanist god; I wrote about him in classwork as if he was a discovery of mine, a magpie poet, and was fortunate to have a teacher who revelled, and was thrilled by, the naive enthusiasm of my responses. I was not slapped down for making barbaric comparisons or rushing to unmediated conclusions; though our teacher told us a great deal about his world, his times, his language, she did not tell us there was one way to look at his work. This went on for a couple of years, as we moved on through his work; through Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night and The Tempest and Julius Caesar and Hamlet. We saw performances too — in particular a brilliant one of Hamlet by one of Australia's most legendary theatre companies, the Nimrod.

But as time went on, I became aware, through what other people said, or things written in textbooks, that my bustling delight was perhaps not universally shared, that Shakespeare represented a kind of Mount Everest to many, that in a way my own responses were not only embarrassing but also incredibly arrogant. How could I properly understand him, some intimated, if I was not a native speaker of English? (Disregarding the fact that the Elizabethan age was no way as monolingual as ours, and that Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, had been virtually bilingual — in Latin and English — from as young an age as I had been bilingual in French and English). Others seemed to intimate that he was old hat, passe, and probably subject to all kinds of butterfly-pinning ideological terms, such as misogynist, racist, imperialist, anti-Semitic: all the deadening, intimidatory jargon from the lexicon of what in France is called 'la langue de bois', or 'wooden tongue'. What then was a young migrant girl doing, thrilling to his stories, his characters, his language? Others still, mostly teenagers my own age, looked on my predilection with the kind of amused tolerance reserved for mildly popular eccentrics in the adolescent world. I was weird; but OK. But even though I was aware of all these things and they began to make me more cautious in what I said or wrote, nevertheless they did not blank out those first effects. Like many instinctive writers, I have a natural facility for ignoring much of what goes on around me; retreating into another world, I can simply pass by the things that are meant to be important, for your age group, sex, ethnic origin. Infuriating it might be, for others, that vagueness, at times; but it saved me from a great deal, I can see that now. Later, I would be told I was bold, or brave; but it's not that. It simply is that you are what you are.

Instinctively, I avoided ideology, which had done enormous damage not only to the culture I came from, but to my own family; instinctively, I could not help a certain lush romanticism, love of language play, love of fantasy, deep-seated melancholy and humour combined to colour my view of the world; and increasingly, I felt drawn to those things in Shakespeare, and not the things which I was supposedly meant to feel, the matrix I was meant to fit him into. I've never been a believer in the Matrix, no matter what it might be, religious, political, bureaucratic, ideological; I have little sense, despite my stranger's status in some ways, of really being a stranger in the world. Rather, I feel at ease in it, I swim in it, even though not at ease altogether in my skin, any more than any of us are.

But as my writing progressed too along with my reading, I kept away from Shakespearean themes and references. Shakespeare stayed imbedded in my world, but being cautious — wanting, also, to not only to avoid pratfalls but also foolish swaggering — I kept away from approaching the plays or the life directly. Nearly all my work was fantastical; my early reading in fairytale, legend and myth had laid down a deep bedrock that continued, and continues, to be vitally important to my own groping along the way to having a distinctive 'voice'. Like most young writers, I pastiched all kinds of styles, but there was always that subconscious core, that state into which I entered when I picked up a pen or hit a keyboard. There, in that world, it was a journey whose ultimate destination I did not know, but must grope my way into knowing. 'Voice' is not something you can fashion; it is there all the time, but needs to be brought out, refined, tinkered with consciously. Instinctive facility with words must be combined with a shaping mind, is what most writers learn over the course of many years. Fantasy was my thing, I knew that from the start; but it had to be much more than a pleasing fluency with symbol and story; it had to be much more formidable, disturbing. It would take time...

I've written more than 30 books, over what appears to be a short period — my first book having been published in 1990. It leads many people to call me prolific, in a way that is intended as a vague reproach. And yet the books have been building up in me since my earliest childhood; I feel a sense of urgency over writing them because of a sense of time passing, as much as a sense of supporting my family. Each book has been written in the best way I could possibly do, and because I really wanted to do it; I find it impossible to write to order, though my imagination is easily sparked off by suggestion. Not a political or ideological person, I still feel a strong sense of wanting to pass something important to readers, and particularly younger readers, of a world of tradition, potential, story, dream, romanticism, humour and melancholy. Memory is what it's about; yet not the memory of stone memorials, but the memory of the quick as well as the dead. The past for us, in my family, was not a foreign country; it was one of the countries we knew well, and lived suspended in part of the time, as much as in the present, just as we were suspended between France and Australia, French and English: and later, for me, England as well, for Shakespeare's country was yet another home for me, as I grew to adulthood. My permanently transitional state used not to be a mainstream thing; but it's become a much more common experience for people as things change.

But when you are in that state, you need more time to understand; you are not in a revolutionary, but evolutionary state. You feel your way along. And so it took me till 1998 to approach Shakespeare directly. By that time, I had accumulated enough knowledge and feeling and understanding of myself as much as his work, to be ready. I remember when the first idea leapt into my mind; it was when I rediscovered, on CD, those very same Shakespearean songs, sung by Alfred Deller, that I had been haunted by as a child. The sprightly lightness, the underlying melancholy of the songs, the sense that anything and nothing was possible, gripped me. I had just read, and loved, the English fairytale Tattercoats, the version of Cinderella which seems to me to perfectly capture that elusive thing called the English spirit, just as Cendrillon does for the French, or Aschenputtel for the German. In that moment of songlike inspiration, I knew that the lame gooseherd with his pipe who takes the place of the fairy godmother in Tattercoats, and whose sweet haunting music can be heard at the end of every country lane, was a Puck; and from that, the two worlds of fairytale and Shakespeare mixed, with seamless fluency. That was Cold Iron, or Malkin, as it's known in the US; and the experience of writing that, gripping, joyous, aching, felt so right that I knew I did not need to be afraid. I felt that my earliest feeling, of Shakespeare being so naturally allied to fantasy, was right. Instinct and experience had combined.

The second novel based directly on Shakespeare's work, The Lost Island (which is its working title — it is likely to be changed) was similarly a felicitous, thrilling experience, written at top white-hot speed, over three blissful, exciting, and unnerving weeks. (Cold Iron was similarly written over three or so weeks.) In that one, I felt very strongly the sense of naturalness, of things clicking in, of experience and imagination combined, which makes of writing such a wonderful and scary thing. My characters lived and breathed Shakespeare's world, and yet they felt very close to me too — and to the readers, family and in the publisher's, who have read it so far (it is to be published in the UK in 2003).

Somehow, in that atmosphere, in the inventive language and no-windows-on-men's-souls of the Elizabethan period, something really deep in me was being released. I read and reread the plays, the sonnets, and lots of lots of books of biography and assorted and related items, and as I did so, I felt also the next stage beginning to happen, which was, hell, I'd like to tackle the life too! I'd also been in the process of writing a book, Forest of Dreams, (Random House Australia 2001) which combines a writer's life and her inner, magical journey in the forest of dreams, a novel which was based on the life and work of the great medieval French poet, Marie de France. This experience led me to feel that I might be able to do it, in a way which might spark off suggestive notions in readers' minds; might make them feel that this is perhaps how William might have come to adulthood; not in a vacuum but in a rich, strange, tumultuous transitional period, in the middle of a large family, connected by kinship to many others in the district, in the midst of a rich medieval life still full of folk belief and custom, despite the Reformation. William as young boy, as adolescent: to my amazement, it had not been done before, in novels. I was in new territory. That was thrilling but scary; an enormous challenge, but one I responded to with instinctive gusto. And so My Brother Will, which I've just finished, and which is based on one important year in Will's life, 1579/80, and told through the eyes of his younger brother Gilbert, was born. The experience of writing it was similar to the others; a natural sense of shape and form and depth. And in each book fantasy, as the natural state of man, the dream that is also reality, is at the core: something that continues to be so as I look at writing my fourth Shakespearean novel, Malvolio's Revenge.

A challenge and a liberation; for in each, I wanted to do the very best I could, yet also allowed my soul-knowledge to range freely.

My Shakespeare may not be the same as yours; as I said at the beginning, he is often remade in our own image. For me, a child brought up between countries and languages and times, it is those dancing gaps, that ambivalence, that fantastic journey, which is my own mirror. But now I know another thing, know it not just through instinct but through experience: he is no god, no major anxiety of influence, but a person who struggled as I did, who found the fluency only after years of one step forward, one step back. His work is a gift, a potential, a glory of richness: but it is also the lifeblood of a human being who remains unknowable and indefinable as ourselves. For it is the gift of a man with fantasy at his core: fantasy, the opposite of ideology, which seeks to mould and coerce and define.

This paper was presented (in absentia) at the recent Mythopoeic Conference on Shakespeare and Fantasy.

Sophie Masson is the author of many novels, several of which have Shakespearean themes. She has also written many short stories, articles, reviews, essays and a play! She has a chapter, "Puck’s Gift", in a forthcoming book, A Local Habitation and a Name: Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young People, edited by Professor Naomi Miller and to be published by Routledge in the USA in November 2002.

More information on her books can be found at her website, Also, there is information on some of her fantasy novels (including pre-publication information on The Lost Island) at Hodder UK’s website,

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